A Crack in the Edge of the World so far

I’m about a quarter of the way through Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World. Here are my impressions so far.

Winchester is clearly a guy who likes to listen to himself speak. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — he’s got a confidence about himself that often results in brilliant phrasing — stuff like this:

Since its very beginnings geology has been a field mired in some alluvial quagmire, defined by dusty cases of fossils, barely comprehensible diagrams of crystals, and the different kinds of breaks that were made in the earth’s surface (as well as by unlovely Continental words like graben, gabbro, and graywacke), and explained with cracked-varnish wall roller charts showing how the world may have looked at the time of the Permian Period. To me it remains the most lyrical and romantic of the sciences; but in terms of glamor, and when compared with astrophysics or molecular biology, the Old Geology is somewhat wanting.

Sure, it’s pretentious and showy, but you can’t help but appreciate the metaphorical use of the term “alluvial quagmire,” or the double entendre of “cracked-varnish wall roller charts.” The language isn’t so difficult that it slows reading, and it was with distinct pleasure that I occasionally caught him in a few writerly gaffes such as unintentionally repeating the same word three times in a paragraph.

The first four chapters of the book serve as a refresher course in modern geology, reminding us that it was only at the end of the twentieth century that the theory of plate tectonics gained acceptance. It’s still amazing to me that I was skeptical of the theory when my 10th grade biology teacher introduced it to me in 1981. I had learned geology reading 1950s library books, and the theory, which went mainstream in the 1960s, was new to me then. To realize how little science knew about the very rocks under our feet, during my own lifetime, is nothing short of astonishing.

Nonetheless, little new information new to me was presented in the beginning of this book, save for a few zingers: scientists are beginning to work on a hypothesis that major earthquakes may trigger similar events on opposite ends of the earth. The 1906 San Francisco quake was preceded in the same year by several other major quakes, a massive tsunami in Peru, and the eruption of Vesuvius. The 2004 tsunami was preceded by a massive quake in Iran and followed in 2005 by the enormous Pakistani quake.

I had known about the 1811 quake in New Madrid, Missouri, but Winchester’s description was the first detailed account I had read, and it was brimming with details such as the dramatic impact it had on the Mississippi river, sometimes causing it to flow backwards.

So far, the book has been a pleasure to read, and we haven’t even gotten to the climactic quake in San Francisco. I’ll keep you posted from time to time as I read on.

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